It’s been a year of scandal in the Missouri General Assembly. House Speaker John Diehl and Sen. Paul LeVota resigned following accusations of improper contact with legislative interns, conduct that prompted outrage from members of both political parties.
It’s tempting to think Missouri’s problems were isolated cases of misbehavior. They are not.
In case you missed it, the Michigan legislature is now embroiled in a juicy late-summer scandal: Two freshman House members engaged in an affair, then tried to cover it up by launching a bizarre pre-emptive rumor that one of them had been caught with a male prostitute. One of the legislators, and perhaps both, may be kicked out of office.
Scandalous behavior isn’t limited to state politicians, of course. Bill Clinton’s intern problem is now a part of history, and other Washington lawmakers have stumbled in recent years. It happens on the local level too: A Kansas City Council member resigned after allegations of inappropriate behavior with an aide.
But the slump in quality representation at the state level appears to be growing. The head of the New York Senate was arrested this year and charged with federal crimes. A state lawmaker in Georgia resigned in April after admitting tax fraud. A state legislator in Alabama was arrested in July after allegedly shooting out the tires on his wife’s car.
Poor statehouse representation is usually blamed on the part-time nature of most state legislatures, and there is some truth in the claim. Most state lawmakers must have outside income because legislative pay is so low. But because few employers allow workers to take four or five months off to make laws, the field of potential candidates is often limited to retirees, the self-employed, spouses and the wealthy.
That leads to lots of amateur politicians who sometimes act like amateurs.
Yet that can’t be the whole story. Michigan’s legislature is full-time, and its House members are paid more than $71,000 a year. New York has a full-time legislature. Professional politicians can behave just as badly as the part-timers.
A more likely explanation is the relative obscurity of statehouse politicians. Most of us can name our congressman or mayor. Maybe even a city council member or two. But a state legislator? No.
And state lawmakers, perhaps sensing this anonymity, may come to believe they’re immune to public scrutiny. Which is usually true, until it isn’t — a lesson that lawmakers in Missouri and Michigan have learned this year, to their chagrin.